One of the things I enjoy doing every Sunday afternoon is listening to Into the 70s on WGHN – five hours of happy memories. As a kid, growing up in the dead coal-mining town of Export, PA in the 1970s, I was attached at the hip to the radio. My trusty transistor went everywhere – to Barbietown in the playroom, to the fort out back, and anywhere in between. In the process I learned about life in the words of over 5,000 pop/rock songs, which I can still regurgitate some 40 years later.
Last Sunday Larry James played a favorite of mine by Bread, Guitar Man:
He can make you love, he can make you cry.
He will bring you down and he’ll get you high.
Something keeps him going miles and miles a day,
To find another place to play. (Gates, 1974)
It sent a shiver up my spine because I could instantly see a parallel running back to the bards of Ireland. They were talented poets and harpers and led lives of great privilege and honor for close to a thousand years, if not longer. They were the “rock stars” of the Gaelic past.
Today when we think of a bard, we might conjure up images of a poet or singer of tale and legend. The bards of ancient Ireland, however, were far more than that. Wright reveals a broader picture with his description, dividing the bards into three distinct branches: the filidh, whose function it was to compose and recite odes and elegies; the breitheamhain (brehons), who recited the ancient laws and acted as official judges; and the seanachidhe, who were historians and genealogists. Sanger and Kinnaird (1992) paint a slightly different picture of the Irish bardic class at a later period in time, dividing it into filidh, reacairí, and harpers. “In the ancient schools of Irish poetry, the classic arrangement was that the fili, highly trained and highly respected, composed the poetry but did not perform it. It would instead be chanted or recited by a reacaire, to accompaniment of a harper” (p. 36).
But all this composing and performing of poetry – recited, chanted, and sung – was not for mere entertainment value, although poetry, legends and music were certainly a feature at royal and lordly feasts (and I’m sure the bards made more than a few girls swoon). The harp, after all, was considered to be an instrument of magic since its music could deeply affect the emotions. Every bard was expected to master the three noble strains: goltraí (bitter strain) – used for funerals and other sad occasions; geantraí (joy strain) – used for feasts and merrymaking; suantraí (sleep strain) – used for healing, trances or lulling a perturbed king to sleep. But the bards also performed an important political function: they delivered the poetry of praise and blame.
The ancient Irish believed that a king was “wed” to the land (even in Christian times). Thus, if the ruler was moral and just, the land was fertile; if he was corrupt, the land grew barren. It was the duty of the bard to express the favor or disfavor of the land with the reign of the king. The bards accomplished this through praise and satire. “Satire,” says Carney, “is a religious sanction and represents the means which the pagan ‘church’ used in order to exercise power over the state. If a [bard] satirises a prince he is in effect telling him that the forces of nature, with which he, the [bard], is in communion, are not satisfied: the result of the satire is an injury to the king’s honour….The converse of this necessarily holds: when a poet praises a king he is assuring him that the powers of nature find him pleasing and that the marriage is going well (1985, p. 111). Satire, it was thought, would raise boils and blemishes on a person’s face – which isn’t so hard to believe. The stress of public ridicule might cause a flare up of acne (just ask any teenager).
Words were considered so sacred that they were forbidden to be written down. With the power to glorify or condemn a king with mere words, it’s obvious that the bards were well respected and even feared. So much so that by 575 AD at the convention of kings at Druim Ceatt, the bards were threatened with exile. “The order of the bards had long held the status of poet-chroniclers of kings and time-honoured guardians of tradition. Their ancient stature had fallen under an ever darker shadow, in consequence of its druidic associations, in Ireland’s early Christian centuries. The response of the bards was to demand ever greater privileges for their order until, on some three historical occasions, they were threatened with expulsion from Ireland….It was [St.] Columba who spoke in the cause of the filidh. His eloquent defense preserved the bards from expulsion, and in gratitude for his advocacy twelve hundred bards are said to have risen as one to sing verses in his praise” (Marsden, 1995, p. 49).
During the Middle Ages as Irish society was influenced by the Church and the nobility became literate, the bards continued to lose their status until they became mere entertainers (harpers). Norman and English disruption of the Gaelic world further lowered their value. Still, the English Crown feared their influence. Queen Elizabeth I is often quoted as having said, “Hang harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments.” While there’s no evidence she actually issued a decree to exterminate all the harpers – just for being harpers – there was an effort to control their influence. What she did issue was an edict to execute itinerant men, including vagabonds, beggars, harpers, and bards who could not produce papers to testify whose servant they were. The edict followed on the heels of a rebellion that resulted in the Battle on Kinsale in 1602.
Gaelic nobles who had long patronized the harpers were either killed or exiled, and the harpers eked out a living wherever they could. The harp became a symbol of Irish rebellion and harpers were forbidden to congregate. As itinerants, they were the primary source of news. The English felt that the harpers stirred Irish blood with their music and song.
They still do to this day.
Then the lights begin to flicker and the sound is getting dim.
The voice begins to falter and the crowds are getting thin,
But he never seems to notice – he’s just got to find another place to play.
Fade away…got to play…. (Gates, 1974)
To find out what it took to be a bard, check out this previous post:
- Carney, J. (1985). Medieval Irish lyrics, selected and translated with The Irish bardic poet: A study in the relationship of poet and patron. Mountrath, Ireland: Dolmen Press.
- Gates, D. (1974). Guitar man. Kipahulu Music, ASCAP.
- Marsden, J. (1995). The illustrated life of Columba. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books.
- Sanger, K. & Kinnaird, A. (1992). Tree of strings: A history of the harp in Scotland. Temple, Scotland: Kinmore Music.
- Wright, D. (1974). Druidism: The ancient faith of Britain. Totowa, NJ: Rowan & Littlefield.